Text: Matthew 1:18-25
A couple of hours before a church’s annual Christmas Pageant was to begin, a worried mother called the director and reported that her little son, who was to play the part of Joseph that night, was sick with the flu, and could not be there for the performance.
Well, this caused dilemma. All of the kids had their own special costumes, they had learned their own parts, and it would be hard at this late hour to switch one of the wise men to Joseph. It was definitely too late to find another Joseph; they had scrounged for all the kids they could find as it was. It was almost showtime, and the show had to go on. If you were the director, what would you do?
I don’t know what kind of solution comes to your mind, but the director of this pageant decided to just write Joseph out of the script altogether. And the plan worked. The amazing thing was, only a few of those who attended the play realized that the cast was incomplete. Most of the people in the audience didn’t even miss poor Joseph.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Joseph doesn’t seem to be all that important to the Christmas event. Of course, we couldn’t have Christmas without Mary or Baby Jesus. Without the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in their fields, the story wouldn’t be the same. The wise men from the East add an exotic touch to the story; majestic visitors making a long journey, bearing costly gifts, and outsmarting King Herod add to the plot.
Our carols tell the story of Christmas. We sing about Mary. We sing about shepherds and angels and a Holy Night. We sing about Wise Men. We sing about prophecies of a coming savior. Of course, we sing about Baby Jesus.
But we don’t sing about Joseph. To listen to our carols, Joseph is only a very marginal character in the Christmas story. Only one carol in our hymnal refers to Joseph, and even then, he is barely mentioned. “Angels We Have Heard on High” includes these words in the fourth verse: “Joseph, Mary, lend your aid, with us sing the savior’s birth.” If we were to go strictly by our carols, Joseph’s only role in the Christmas story is to help us give praise to Jesus.
If our carols don’t pay much attention to Joseph, maybe it’s because the scriptures do not have a lot to say about Joseph. “Joseph” appears 36 times in the New Testament, which seems like a lot until you investigate and find that in the majority of cases, it’s not this Joseph. You’ve got the Old Testament Joseph who is referenced in the New Testament, then there is Joseph of Arimathea, who claimed Jesus’ body and had him buried, and there is Joseph, a brother of Jesus, who is mentioned a few times. A couple of other Josephs show up in genealogies. Our Joseph doesn’t rate that much mention, just a few times in Matthew and in Luke. He is mentioned only once by John and not at all by Mark. Paul, who wrote about half the New Testament, never mentions him.
The baby Jesus is front and center in the Christmas story, but a lot of others have solo parts. Mary, definitely, who literally sings a solo. The angels, who announce the birth to Mary and to Joseph and then to the shepherds, have solo parts, as do the shepherds, who go to see the baby. The wise men have solo parts, or at least a nice trio. But Joseph never utters a word. In the scriptures, in the whole New Testament, Joseph does not have a single thing to say. In fact, after Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the temple at age 12, Joseph is never again mentioned, leading most to assume that he died at a relatively early age.
Joseph is not a soloist. He is more of an accompanist. And accompanists are rarely remembered.
Ask a musician, “Who was the greatest saxophonist?” and you will get answers – maybe John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. Ask an opera aficionado, “Who was the greatest soprano?” and there will be various opinions – maybe Maria Callas or Jessye Norman. People might have different opinions about rock singers or jazz singers or trumpet players. But ask, “Who was the greatest accompanist?” and you will get some blank looks. Nobody remembers the accompanist.
Joseph is more like an accompanist. He’s not the center of attention. But it may be that precisely because he is not the center of attention, he is a good model for us.
It is hard for most of us to relate to Mary. Mary seems such a tremendous example of faith. She is depicted in music and paintings and sculpture and all kinds of art, and after all, Mary bore the savior of the world. Mary seems way beyond us, and it can be hard to relate to many of the heroes and heroines of faith.
But Joseph seems more like us. He doesn’t stand out. He is a quiet, hard-working person. He’s a carpenter. He works with his hands, and he speaks not so much with his words but with his actions.
Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which in that day means that while they are not yet officially married, they are engaged, and the marriage can only be broken off through divorce. They have not had marital relations, and he learns that she is pregnant.
What do you do? Joseph is no doubt angry and embarrassed and hurt and feels betrayed. The scripture says that “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Despite whatever pain he felt, Joseph did not want to hurt Mary. His options were a public divorce, which would be humiliating for her, or he could divorce her privately and quietly. As a righteous person, he opted to divorce her quietly.
We need to think about this word “righteous.” As a righteous person, Joseph could not live with what Mary had done (or what he thought she had done). This had caused irreparable harm to their relationship, and to his honor, which was an especially powerful consideration in that culture. But righteousness is about more than being untainted by sin. Righteousness also seems to include a measure of mercy. Because he is a righteous man, he does not want to expose Mary to public humiliation.
A righteous person upholds what is right, but also has a concern for mercy. There are so many angry voices we hear who would claim to be speaking out of righteousness but who seem to have no sense of mercy, no sense of shared humanity, no sense that we all fall short, who leave no room for grace. But not Joseph. For Joseph, righteousness includes acting with mercy and compassion.
We know what happened. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him that Mary’s child was of God and that he should take her as his wife. Joseph does not say a word, but he listens and acts on this message from God. Some find they are going to be a parent through a home pregnancy test, or at the doctor’s office. Joseph gets the news in a dream.
Getting the news that you will have a child fills a person with so many thoughts and emotions. If you have been hoping for a child, there is joy and excitement, much anticipation. But even when one is excited about the coming birth, there is still concern. Immediately one’s mind goes into the planning mode – not just planning for the pregnancy and planning for the birth, but planning for this child’s life. Particularly if it is one’s first child, you start thinking about things that you hadn’t given so much thought to before, things like child-proofing the house and life insurance and elementary schools and on and on.
Often, there is a certain amount of worry. Worry over finances perhaps, concern for the mother’s and baby’s health, worry over what kind of world this child will be born into. If it is your first child, there may be a kind of general anxiety over the enormity of what is taking place. You are going to be a mother? A father? You are hit with a sense of responsibility. While learning that one will be a parent may be joyful news, it can also be a sobering moment.
Think now of Joseph, who perhaps has some of these feelings, but how much more. An angel of God spoke to him in a dream, but how is he to know that it was really God? Maybe it was just a weird dream. When the angel visited Mary, she breaks into joyous song. When the angel visits Joseph, he sits straight up in bed and breaks into a cold sweat.
And yet, Joseph took Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own. Jesus was to call for a new kind of righteousness, and before he was even born, Joseph demonstrated this righteousness. It was righteousness that did not simply follow the letter of the law, it was righteousness that actually cost a person something, that required personal investment, personal sacrifice. We often think of righteousness as impeccable behavior, as always doing what is right. But Joseph shows a righteousness that is willing to suffer for and with others.
To divorce Mary quietly, as he had planned, would have demonstrated a certain kind of righteousness. Going ahead and marrying this woman that he loved, based on the word of an angel that appeared to him in a dream, knowing that people were talking, enduring the comments on the street, facing the disapproval of family, facing shame and embarrassment and the disapproval of religious authorities – this was altogether another level of righteousness. Because even if he did believe that God had spoken to him, who else would believe that?
Quiet Joseph, a hard-working carpenter who is a man of few words, nevertheless speaks volumes. In a world where talk is easy, Joseph reminds us that actions matter the most.
It is hard to do the right thing when one has to pay a price for it, when one has to suffer for it. It is hard to do the right thing when you are not 100% sure it is the right thing, and there are easier options out there. And it is exceedingly difficult to do the right thing when everybody else thinks it is the wrong thing.
Joseph may come across as a relatively minor character in the Christmas story. But in some ways he has the hardest part. Mary knows that the child is of God. Joseph can’t be so sure.
Think of the other characters that we sing about in our carols. Shepherds are visited by angels and go to Bethlehem to check it out. If the report turns out to be wrong, no harm done. The Wise Men go on a long journey to find the newborn king. But if things don’t go as they expect, it’s still a nice road trip, and if you are a wise man you can learn a lot of things by visiting other cultures. If they had decent accountants, they could even write it off on their taxes as an educational expense, and anyway these guys appear to be flush with cash. For Joseph, there is a lot more riding on this.
Joseph shows us that while the birth of Jesus brought joy and wonder and awe, it also provoked a crisis in what it means to be faithful, what it means to be righteous. Joseph may have been the first to face this crisis, but throughout Jesus’ ministry, he caused people to rethink and reconsider things. “Love your enemies. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted. It is better to give than to receive.” And on and on.
We don’t sing about him so much, but Joseph is a good example for us. Out of all the characters in the Christmas story, of the whole bunch, he may be the one we can best relate to. Because most of us are not soloists. Most of us are not big talkers. Most of us are not flashy. Most of us are pretty ordinary. Yet in our ordinary lives, God speaks to us.
Joseph is more of an accompanist than a soloist, but you know, accompanists are very underrated.
Once in a while, we have a substitute accompanist who may be unfamiliar with the hymns. If they play a fast-paced gospel song too slowly or rush through a majestic, stately hymn, it makes a big difference. Or ask any soloist, and they will tell you how important it is to have a good accompanist. An accompanist can hide a lot of faults and a good accompanist can help make the soloist really shine.
Joseph is not front and center. But look at what he does. He puts up with public humiliation and embarrassment. He protects Mary and this baby. After another dream, he and Mary take the baby and flee for their lives to Egypt, to a strange and unfamiliar land. Then when it was safe, he brought them back and settled in Nazareth.
Joseph shows us what faith involves. It is not simply following the right rules and procedures; it is following God’s way even when it is costly and even when we are not 100% certain. It is being willing to suffer with others. It is demonstrated more in our actions than in our words.
Quiet Joseph, often forgotten in the drama of Christmas, is a model of faith and righteousness for us all. St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” Joseph did not seem to need the words. Amen.